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the black swan of nanowrimo October 14, 2008

Posted by eatnorthamerica in farcical review bullshit, pseudo-informative bullshit, things that are not quite things we know.
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The Canadian government finally returned the money it owed me from the time I spent being joyfully-unemployed last year, so I decided to blow some of it on Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s idiosyncratic Black Swan.

Very briefly, Taleb is an iconoclast ex-quant (and full time wag) who does things like buy options geared towards the inevitability of economic disaster, accepting constant losses while waiting for crashes to send his option values skyrocketing.  

Commonsense dictates we go for small, constant gains when we invest, yet opens us up to getting screwed by unpredictable economic failure. For Taleb, the world has been shaped by these acts of random chance, acts that have a minute chance of occurring and carry huge impact, acts that we claim are inevitable after the fact and yet never plan for.

We carry on with life because some things are completely out of our ability to predict. You can’t bank on what they’ll be, you can only bank on the probability that they will happen. Hot from Taleb comes a moniker for events of this ilk: black swans. I won’t get into the details, because far better minds have written more informative material on him. Eristics aside, his viewpoint radiates some uncommon sense. Sometimes it’s refreshing to hear someone say, “I don’t know.”

I’m reminded of the Time article (this one made it to Time’s 85 year anniversary compendium) on Deep Blue, the chess computer that beat Kasparov:

What is Deep Blue’s secret? Grand master Yasser Seirawan put it most succinctly: “The machine has no fear.” He did not just mean the obvious, that silicon cannot quake. He meant something deeper: because of its fantastic capacity to see all possible combinations some distance into the future, the machine, once it determines that its own position is safe, can take the kind of attacking chances no human would. The omniscient have no fear.

In Game 1, Blue took what grand master Robert Byrne called “crazy chances.” On-site expert commentators labeled one move “insane.” It wasn’t. It was exactly right.

Here’s what happened. Late in the game, Blue’s king was under savage attack by Kasparov. Any human player under such assault by a world champion would be staring at his own king trying to figure out how to get away. Instead, Blue ignored the threat and quite nonchalantly went hunting for lowly pawns at the other end of the board. In fact, at the point of maximum peril, Blue expended two moves–many have died giving Kasparov even one–to snap one pawn. It was as if, at Gettysburg, General Meade had sent his soldiers out for a bit of apple picking moments before Pickett’s charge because he had calculated that they could get back to their positions with a half-second to spare.

In humans, that is called sangfroid. And if you don’t have any sang, you can be very froid. But then again if Meade had known absolutely–by calculating the precise trajectories of all the bullets and all the bayonets and all the cannons in Pickett’s division–the time of arrival of the enemy, he could indeed, without fear, have ordered his men to pick apples.

Which is exactly what Deep Blue did. It had calculated every possible combination of Kasparov’s available moves and determined with absolute certainty that it could return from its pawn-picking expedition and destroy Kasparov exactly one move before Kasparov could destroy it. Which it did.

Kasparov himself said that with Deep Blue, quantity had become quality.

Taleb repudiates the power of human inference; the computer is incapable of it. Sometimes you have to overthrow human frailty to succeed. Is that good, or bad?

Everyone’s iPhone is Wikipedia-enabled. The showboat of knowledge sails on, leaving us only the lifeline of connective insight.

November is coming up, and that means NaNoWriMo is here again. 50000 words for the month of November, the amount that mutates novella into novel. I did not know that Brave New World contains a mere 50000 words of blazing beauty.

1,666⅔ words per day, for thirty days. If you don’t make the effort, you never get the chance to be a black swan.

That, combined with spending enough time on my guitar to not screw up someone’s wedding ceremony, is going to be a hell of a lot of doing. But when people are doing this, what excuse do I have? Let’s go learn from failure.

Apparently it takes a minimum of 10000 hours to become world-class at anything, so I’d better get cracking.

I had a clump of songs in major keys on my playlist zoning together whilst I was writing this; all background noise, until a minor key popped out and my focus was jerked right there.

Our random lives boil down to self-imposed decisions. Unpredictability may be the new god, but it doesn’t mean we can’t choose which dice he throws.


I’ve spent a lot of energy and many years trying to learn a very few basic things, which may turn out to be mostly crude opinions anyway. There’s so little in the world we can be sure of, and maybe it’s the lack, that flaw or deficiency, if you will, that drives our strongest compulsions.”

Ben Fountain


cat shit prolix beauty October 4, 2008

Posted by eatnorthamerica in things that are not quite things we know, verbiage clusterfuck.

If everything in our heads were laid out in the open, would the world be a better place? Nobody would be able to inveigle or obfuscate. Yeah, people will always come up with creative ways to take advantage of others, but surely the opportunity for them to do so would be drastically reduced.

Even if the entire concept makes me shudder, I can’t help thinking it would be more beneficial than not, since if that were how the world worked we wouldn’t have any hangups about being open. We would just be. And there would be nothing wrong with being.

I’m drunk on Shirley Temples, and intoxicated by proxy.

I do not often weep, but I wept when I first viewed a certain scene from American Beauty. A plastic bag floats over the dust on nothing but wind, transfigured into more than it never dreamt of being. It became cinema as cinema only sometimes dreams of being, of elevating the jejune to genius. Some genius set that scene up with transcendentally beautiful cleverness because they understood both beauty and cleverness, set it to music scored to machinate a tender and lingering tristesse, and I said why not, and let them take the tears from me.

Nothing to do with anything in particular, everything to do with everything in general.

It’s not too often that I get the feeling I can say absolutely anything I want to someone. This has absolutely nothing to do with establishing bonds of friendship; it’s more like a detached celebration of banter. Bantering is a fine art. Some people wear self-confidence in such a manner that I pretty much know nothing I say is going to bring them down; some people, I think, like banter because they either understand it as a game, or because in a way it’s a form of acceptance, or acknowledgement.

I don’t know that banter necessarily brings me closer to people; it’s more a mental gambit where all the players are intent on playing at being dicktrees to each other. The trick, I guess, is to get away with pretending to be as much of an asshole as you can without actually being an asshole. (If you’re not just pretending to be an asshole, it’s not banter, it’s war.)

Banter is possibly only good in small, measured doses. I’m not sure how good it is for the soul.

Last night we were meant to be going to a colleague’s leaving dance. There have been far too many of these things lately. Let’s not get into that, it’s depressing as hell. We got to the venue and discovered that bouncers are dicktrees. You can’t even banter with them! Who knew! I didn’t care for the seamy glimpses I caught through their steamy windows, so!

Under the glass forest canopy we were reduced to …what? Animals, quailing from the rain. My animal friends and I went for crepes instead and talked about bullshit like existentialism.

I am high as hell on sugar.

I slept at 4 and woke at 9.30; morning comes too quickly these days. I lay indolent beneath cotton sheets and stared at a spiral of hair on my pillow, and played with the focus of my eyes. We have the latent power to do all this trippy shit we don’t usually bother thinking about. It’s as trippy as thinking about what it really means that light is just a wave (or a particle, yeah), or trying to imagine an eighth colour.

I popped different parts of the hair formation in and out of focus and then I realised; there’s the summation of my life at present. I can’t hold it all in focus all at once. Something must give.

Beauty is realising I’m only two minutes late for lunch.

Now here we are, sitting in the food court at the mall.

To my left I keep hearing snippets of the most boring conversation in the world. It makes me wince. I don’t think I need to describe it to you; we’ve all had our share of banal conversations. Perhaps all conversations start off as boring because they are rooted in the concrete; of this too, I’m often guilty.

Mired in concrete, people are unified only by the same interests; without commonality you’re regally fucked. Comparatively, a shared interest in abstraction is often enough to make topics cohere.

There’s an art to triggering viewpoints from other people, and it’s not always easy. Bringing a conversation round to an abstract bent usually requires some self-sacrifice on the part of the contributors. Concretions are safe, solid things that only exist and are; abstractions are often personal and revealing. We’re not talking facts anymore, we’re talking opinions. Those start wars, you know. Maybe we should just bring it all back to banter.

Onward, to duty. Tick tocks the clock, tick, tick tock, the lamp greens the light, and I go.

Now here we are in the time of rain, out in the open and from under the forest, and I ask you — what would you say the chances were of two raindrops hitting you in both eyes both at once? Here I am, in the lift, having a throwaway conversation with two strangers about how it’s the worst thing when the rain catches you naked and umbrellaless and lost, and then I realise my umbrella was with me all along, that it was always there.